The 1945 Pan-African Congress: Manchester and the Fight for Equality

This is the first of four Black History Month blogs, all focusing on the Pan-African Congress of 1945 held here in Manchester. In this refreshed blog (originally posted in 2019)  Holly Randhawa, at the time on work placement at the AIU Centre, writes about 1945’s Congress, underlining the importance of combatting colonial nostalgia.  

What was the Pan-African Congress?

Held in Manchester in 1945, the 5th Pan-African Congress was part of a series of seven meetings, intended to address the decolonisation of Africa from Western imperial powers. Set within a new world order of international cooperation during the 1940s, the Congress demanded an end to colonial rule and racial discrimination, as well as the recognition of human rights and equality of economic opportunity for all peoples of African descent.

What Collections are available?

To mark the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Congress in 1995, six audio interviews were carried out with local Mancunians who either lived during, or attended this historic event. Thanks to a recent project by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, these interviews are now available as part of the digital sound archive Pan-African Congress 50 Years On, which can be explored using Sound Cloud.


Why is it important?

Although the Congress may not seem relevant today (colonialism is all in the past right?), it appears that colonial nostalgia is making a comeback. Alongside Brexit, the Trump administration and the rise of far-right political parties across Britain and Europe, the objectives of the Pan-African Congress are still worryingly significant. Looking back at some of the topics addressed on the agenda of the Congress in 1945, it is unsettling to see that many of these issues are not confined to the past.

Colour Problem
Title of the First Session of the 1945 Pan-African Congress.

Entitled ‘The Colour Problem in Britain’, the first session of the Congress ‘reported on the position of coloured people in the British Isles’, aiming to tackle the difficulties facing coloured workers who had fought for Britain during WWI. These servicemen were being denied the employment and benefits which had been promised to them by the British government after the war, a sentiment which has been echoed during the recent Windrush scandal, in which several British-Caribbean subjects were wrongly detained, denied legal rights and deported from the UK.


Why Manchester?

‘…the political consciousness in Manchester was very strong, so it was the ideal place’ – Paul Okijie, chairman of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1995.


The importance of remembering Manchester as honouring and upholding values intrinsic to the Congress is imperative in understanding the city’s complex past, as well as celebrating the prominent figures within the BAME community who helped to shape the Congress’s history. Unlike the previous four Congresses, Manchester involved people from the African Diaspora across the globe, including Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Americans. As historian Simon Katzenellenbogen said of the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations,‘it is also to recognise what has too long been ignored – the contribution made by the people and the city of Manchester, most prominently by the city’s people of African and Afro-Caribbean origins’.

The commemorating plaque in Manchester

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Stories

Ordinary Mancunians like Raz Finni and Archie Downie form part of the Pan African Congress 50 Years On digital archive project. Not only do their reminiscences help to shape an understanding of the historical contexts surrounding the Congress, but provide an insight into the continuing experience of the black community during the post-war years. Listening to their experiences of racism highlights the importance of BAME histories, as well as the need for inclusion and representation in today’s society.

The original declaration of the 1945 Pan-African Congress, as outlined by George Padmore.
The original declaration of the 1945 Pan-African Congress, as outlined by George Padmore.

Around the globe, the effects of colonialism are still ongoing. The Pan-African Congress declared freedom, independence, education and a decent living as the basis for their demands, yet sadly these basic rights are still not within reach for many people today. As we celebrate the achievements of this monumental event in furthering the cause of decolonisation, it continues to remain increasingly important that the issues at the heart of this Congress are not forgotten.

Sources

Adi, Hakim and Marika Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London: New Beacon Books, 1995).

Sherwood, Marika, Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress (Savannah Press, 1995).